On the occasion of its 100th anniversary today, the Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute at New York University put together a list of what it calls the "100 Outstanding Journalists in the United States in the Last 100 Years.” Carl Bernstein and Bob Woodward are there. So is Seymour Hersh. And the great David Halberstam. Along with Howard Cosell. (Don't ask me to explain that one.) You'll see a lot of familiar names, and some not so familiar, such as Richard Harding Davis. It's fairly New York-oriented, but then so is journalism, and so is NYU.
Only one person on the NYU list is identified as a science writer: Rachel Carson, the author of the hugely influential 1962 book, Silent Spring.
Two others on the list could reasonably be called science writers. One is John McPhee, the New Yorker writer whose books include Annals of the Former World, Basin and Range, and, a personal favorite, The Pine Barrens. The other is Randy Shilts, whose reporting on AIDS for the San Francisco Chronicle, culminating in the book And the Band Played On, set a new standard for a personal style of investigative reporting. (Shilts died of AIDS at 42 in 1994.)
This led me to wonder: Whom would we put on a list of the 100 greatest U.S. science writers of the last 100 years?
Alton Blakeslee, the long-time science editor of the Associated Press, might be one. (Disclosure: I have a sentimental attachment to this one. Blakeslee followed his father, Howard Blakeslee, as AP Science Editor. And, some years later, I followed Al.)
Lewis Thomas, author of the eloquent book of essays Lives of a Cell, is another. And in that vein, E.O. Wilson surely deserves a mention. We should probably include the wonderful essayist Loren C. Eiseley, the author of, among other books, The Star Thrower and The Invisible Pyramid. Sadly, Eiseley is not remembered as often as he should be.
Stephen Jay Gould, familiar to many of us, is a strong candidate.
Stephen Hawking can't make a U.S. list, although it would be hard to exclude him otherwise. Also among physics writers, I can think of Heinz Pagels, whose books, The Cosmic Code, and Perfect Symmetry, are now out of date but still worth reading for the elegance of the language and the insightful explanations. Lee Hotz suggests Walter Sullivan of The New York Times, whose 50-year career spanned the last half of the 20th century, and who also covered physics (and the physical sciences). Richard Dawkins might make it on the strength of The Selfish Gene, even if he hadn't written anything else.
Bruce Ritchie of The Florida Tribune tweets to remind us of a couple of writers with Florida connections whom we should perhaps consider: Archie Carr, the turtle conservationist and writer, and Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, author of the classic work The Everglades: River of Grass.
This is just to get you thinking. Please send me suggestions via Twitter (@praeburn) or on the chat lists of the National Association of Science Writers. I'll update here.
And, one other thing: The Wikipedia entry on science journalism badly needs updating and expansion. Perhaps that would make a good project for a small science writers' committee?
- Paul Raeburn